Kirk enjoys using the power of well designed machinery to propel him forward. For kicks, he attacks the rolling hills of his scenic 232-acre Belspring farm on a dirt bike, admitting, “I hot dog too much,” Kirk says. “Take too many risks.”
About 10 miles southeast of the farm where he lives with wife Donna, sons Julian and Martin and step-daughter Kellie, is his Biopop (Biological and Popular Cultures, Inc.) headquarters. There, as Biopop Chairman, he oversees development of advanced computer/telephone technology and innovative business systems that enhance business opportunities for client companies.
Between journeys to distant corners of the globe to advance his myriad other business enterprises, he commutes between Belspring and Biopop in his candy apple red Hummer, enjoying a state-of-the-art sound system playing music ranging from classical to Rage Against the Machine.
At 45, Kirk has already enjoyed a highly lucrative career in business. He has rung the bell, so to speak. Making money, though, is not Kirk’s raison de etre. The play’s the thing.
“I never distinguish between work and play,” Kirk says. “To me, everything has personal significance.”Seven years after graduating from Radford in 1976, Kirk co-founded a company in Bland County, Virginia, called General Injectables and Vaccines, Inc. (GIV). Following his business credo of “designing a seamless system of intelligent humans and intelligent machines,” he built GIV into a powerhouse in the pharmaceuticals industry with annual sales in the $118 million range.
Kirk felt it was the “most mature” of his various enterprises and he and his ownership team sold GIV in 1998. The Wall Street Journal reported a sale price of $65 million cash up front with an additional $80 million possible depending on the company’s post-sale performance.
On the heels of the GIV sale, Kirk gave his alma mater $1 million the largest gift Radford has ever received from an alumnus. Kirk’s contribution to RU’s Capital Campaign established the Zylphia Shu-En Kirk Endowment, named in honor of his Singaporean daughter, with portions of the money earmarked to establish a language curriculum in Mandarin and to fund study abroad opportunities in China.
The GIV sale figures are impressive, to be sure, but the significance of the payoff is that it positions Kirk to mature other businesses, launch new ventures, have even more fun.
GIV succeeded because of its clear focus on providing an unprecedented level of service and convenience.
“It was founded on the notion,” Kirk says, “of providing a service to every physician in the United States, through which any doctor could pick up the phone, dial a toll free number and get any injectable product he wanted delivered to his office the next morning. No one had ever offered that level of convenience. We saw an underserved market, and we saw a vendor class which was frustrated in their attempts to serve that market.
“Basically, we defined a market segment in a fairly novel but logical way and developed a plan that could enable us to become a leader in that segment. We’ve actually done this a number of times you define the segment, you provide the definition and then you become the leader. This gives you an opportunity to stack it in your favor. You make sure your definition favors you out of the gate.”
Kirk developed some of his innovative business concepts during his college days at Radford, which were followed by law school at the University of Virginia. He earned a Juris Doctor degree at UVA and practiced law from 1980-90. Kirk had graduated from now closed Dublin High School as a student “more interested in being socially successful than academically successful,“ he says. “I was sort of the leader of the bad clique. The good clique already had a leader; that position was filled. And it was the bad clique that really needed some cohesion.”
After high school, Kirk went to work selling cars and motorcycles and decided to enroll part time at then Radford College to take business and economics courses he thought might be useful.
“I looked at it as a very short term objective,” he says, “and I still remember my surprise when after the first quarter, I aced everything so I kept on taking courses and expanded my range of interest beyond highly utilitarian business courses to more academic courses and ultimately just anything that interested me calculus, Latin.”
Kirk developed a rapport with former dean and department of business and economics chair Ardyce Lightner, who retained him as her sole advisee. Lightner encouraged his intellectual curiosity and freed him from the limitations of requirements and prerequisites, in effect allowing Kirk to devise his own degree program.
“I really sort of worked the institutional seams of Radford and this allowed me to fashion an extremely good education,” Kirk says. “I found many of the faculty were extremely cooperative in developing my education. I don’t know how many times a faculty member would stay 90 minutes after class in discussion with me. I had good relationships with many of the faculty, although in truth, they were usually the fringe faculty.
“I think any student who is genuinely interested in the subject under discussion will find reciprocity from the professors at Radford. Since then I’ve had time to reflect on what a thankless job it is in the main. When a professor finds someone actively interested, he or she will work with that student. It’s a delight to them. I’ve always felt I obtained as good or better an education at Radford than someone who went to an Ivy League school simply because of that dynamic.”
Kirk decided to support the capital campaign with a major gift in gratitude for the opportunity RU provided him in the 1970s and the opportunities it continues to provide.
“I owe a great debt to Ardyce Lightner and the many faculty members who took a lot of extra effort with me,” he says. “And I can certainly identify with other people in situations similar to the one I was in. Because of its geographic location and very diverse academic offerings, Radford provides the potential for many students to obtain a level of education that would otherwise be unavailable to them.”
Just as Kirk’s gift to RU will stimulate educational growth, his newest venture will stimulate economic growth in the region. Kirk and his “transaction team” of Marcus Smith and Dixon Low have established Third Security LLC, a Southwest Virginia-focused investment bank to advise and finance “companies with good human capital and good intellectual property which need assistance in advancing their corporate agenda.”
Other businesses Kirk is involved with include: Lotus Biochemical Corp, a pharmaceutical company based in Bristol, Tn.; BCCX, Greensboro, N.C., which manages clinical reference laboratories in large multi-specialty physician clinics and also owns some other diagnostic companies, such as Landmark Scientific, which manufactures and markets blood chemistry analyzers; SFR, LLC, based in Radford, a property company which applies web and call center technology to the management of its own portfolio of rental houses across Virginia.
Kirk’s path to Southwest Virginia included stints in California, Massachusetts and Texas. A self-proclaimed Air Force brat, Kirk was born on an air base in California.
He grew up immersed in the high tech world of the Air Force, witnessing hundreds of missile launches at Vandenberg Air Force base, then the largest ICBM missile base in the world.
By the time he was nine years old, he had “learned a lot about rocketry and could explain the mechanics of nuclear fission and fusion.”
His immersion in advanced technology influenced an insatiable curiosity, which continued at Radford during an era when the first personal computers were appearing.
“I was interested in learning to program in assembly language,” he says, “and that required an appreciation of the internal architecture of the processors. I was also inspired by the notion of making music with computers and I did a great deal of this. That continues as a hobby today.”
Computer-generated music was just one off-shoot of Kirk’s fascination with the concepts of artificial intelligence.
“I was reading everything I could on artificial intelligence, including the early writings of Douglas Hofstadter (whose mentor and Ph.D. advisor at Stanford was Karl Pribram, who for the past 10 years has directed the Center for Brain Research and Informational Sciences as the James P. and Anna King Eminent Scholar at RU). His idea that content IS just fancy form, just tremendously elaborated form, had a great influence on me and converged with my interest in the use of executive automation in business.
“I was forming some basic thoughts about how we could use these emerging technologies to make business more fun, to take more of the drudgery out of running a business. So much of the focus of automation prior to that time had involved displacing or facilitating what had previously been manual labor, but with the advent of the computer, for the first time it seemed quite clear you could do the same thing at the executive ranks, you could free executives then to work more creatively.
“The concept of work flow was something I was thinking about even then that it should be possible to direct data according to the nature of the issue to the appropriate persons in organizations to produce a decision. I began to think that the traditional hierarchy could be seriously challenged, and that chain of command, chain of authority, lines of responsibility could all vary according to the issue.
It seemed to me that automating this process with centralized authority capable of implementing these intelligent structures would produce a much more efficient organization.”
Biopop, says Kirk, “will have a great deal to say about how” executive automation develops. The company is preparing to launch its first spate of information technology products this summer in the U.S.
These new products, says Kirk, will “facilitate the creation of intelligent structures of humans and machines to serve some organizational purpose using considerable cutting edge technology.”
Kirk has a keen interest in China, both economic and cultural. He is currently studying Mandarin and says “Any institution with any pretense of internationalism or multiculturalism has to include China. There are two billion speakers of Chinese on the globe, compared to maybe 80 million speakers of French.”
He already has a firm business foothold in China, where he and his team have parlayed some original intellectual property into a blood chemistry analysis business with “complete Chinese coverage we have distributors in every province.”
The company’s patented blood chemistry analyzer “has a unique price to performance ratio which makes the instrument particularly compelling in the developing world.”
China is rapidly developing as the world’s largest consumer market and Kirk believes that “China will certainly become the largest economic power on the globe in my lifetime.
“I’ve felt that since my first visit there in 1988. I could clearly see among all the people younger than me, those that had not been heavily scarred by the cultural revolution, that they had an intense desire to become part of the consumer revolution.
“I think people today realize that what is happening in China, what happened in Eastern Europe, what happened in Russia, and what is now happening in Cuba has more to do with people’s desire to live a good life than any kind of political ideology.
“The world of the 21st century is so much an American world, there is no question that America as a culture has become the dominant culture in the world. Everywhere you go in the world American cultural values are the top ones, what people aspire to.
“The reasons that World War III didn’t happen owes more to that than anything else, I think. This war for which I was so well prepared as a child, that was the complete focus of those around me on the missile base; it never happened.”
R.J. Kirk’s $1 million commitment to the capital campaign is the largest gift Radford has ever received from an alumnus.
“We are deeply grateful for R. J. Kirk’s confidence in the quality of the academic program at Radford,” said President Douglas Covington. “R.J.’s commitment to the capital campaign is one of the most rewarding investments that can be made and will have an enormous impact on future opportunities to enrich the curriculum by diversifying our educational offerings.”
A portion of the money is earmarked to establish a language curriculum in Mandarin and to fund study abroad opportunities in China. Plans are being developed to offer an introductory Mandarin course each year to a group of 10 to 12 students. Those students would then travel to China the following semester for further study with their language teacher as mentor and chaperone. Advanced Mandarin instruction could also be offered to the students upon their return to Radford.